Navigate to News section

What’s Happening on Israeli Buses

Soldiers and women continue to face discrimination

Adam Chandler
August 16, 2012

The imposition of a system of segregation on Israeli buses is situation that only seems to be getting worse. What started out as “men in the front, women in the back” dynamic has ostensibly extended to different forms of prejudice, including the unconscionable discrimination against Israeli soldiers on buses that are already specifically segregated by gender.

A story from this morning details the travails of two Haredi soldiers, who allege that, in separate instances, they found themselves left behind by Egged, Israel’s national bus company, on so-called “Kosher” bus lines.

Earlier this week, another soldier attempted to board bus number 451, which pulled into the same station. But the bus driver refused to let him in, saying yet again that the roadside area was not a proper station and that he only stopped there because the bus was experiencing some kind of a malfunction. However, instead of turning off the engine to fix the technical difficulty, the bus driver and the passengers were on their way the second the soldier stepped out of the vehicle.

“I was really pissed off,” the soldier told Ynet. “I used to take this bus regularly for three years while studying at the yeshiva. So what, regular haredim can board a bus, but a haredi soldier – with a kippah, a beard and tzitziot – can’t? I don’t understand what’s going on here. After all, Egged is operating on behalf of the State.”

Earlier this week, a female Israeli soldier (who was not in uniform) was driven from a Jerusalem bus after being taunted by ultra-Orthodox passengers about her clothing. This was after she was first barred entry at the front of the bus–which her mother was driving.

Gender segregation on Israeli buses has already galvanized a small movement. Following a 2011 ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court, which outlawed what were known as mehadrin bus lines–or buses that are separated by gender, Israeli women have begun to participate in Freedom Rides, boarding buses and sitting in the front to protest a tacit continuation of mehadrin buses.

Back in June, Diana Bletter wrote about the female Freedom Riders for Tablet, explaining its origins:

Segregated buses made a splash in the Israeli media in December 2011 when Tanya Rosenblit, 28, sat in the front of a public bus going from Ashdod to Jerusalem and refused an ultra-Orthodox man’s demand that she go to the back. The man prevented the bus from moving, enlisting his friends to join his protest. When the bus driver called a police officer, he tried to persuade Rosenblit to comply. She did not back down, and eventually the bus took off without the male passenger. “I cannot humiliate myself in order to respect someone else,” Rosenblit wrote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and other politicians roundly condemned bus segregation.

But, though there are no more de jure segregated bus lines, many former mehadrin bus lines resolutely maintain de facto segregation. I’d volunteered to take this bus as a Freedom Rider, a volunteer group of men and women who, under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center, monitor the everyday implementation of bus desegregation. Since the Supreme Court ruling, hundreds of Freedom Riders have traveled on buses to demonstrate to the public that women are legally entitled to sit wherever they want. And as I rode this bus—and several others for an entire morning this month—I thought about how the segregation of women on public buses symbolizes something far greater than just a seating arrangement. It is part of the agenda set by a very small minority of extremists within Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community (which is itself a minority) to push women not only to the back of the bus—but to the back of Israeli public space. The country I love and have lived in for the past 21 years is threatened by extremists who believe that a woman’s modesty is defined by her invisibility.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.